Frank Diep has been crafting sushi for years, but it hasn't gained him any fame. The Chinese-Vietnamese sushi chef got his start in Japanese cuisine at Teppay on Westheimer close to 20 years ago. Since then, he’s worked at establishments including Aka Sushi, Kaneyama and most recently at Chi Japanese Cuisine in The Woodlands before finally taking the plunge five months ago, opening Oba Japanese Cuisine in Sugar Land, in the digs formerly occupied by Preview Modern Seafood.
Cosmetically, not much has changed at the restaurant since its Preview days. The place is still tiny—with just four booths, a few tables and a sushi bar—and the original design, with lots of polished wood set against black-and-cream-colored details, still looks brand new. The only major difference is that the sushi bar is now fully stocked with fish, with Diep lovingly presiding over it.
I had skipped lunch the day that I visited, arriving famished at 4 p.m on a Friday evening. Many restaurants close between lunch and dinner service, but thankfully for me, Oba keeps its doors open straight from open to close. It also has an all-day happy hour menu, with select sushi priced from $1 to $1.75, signature rolls for $9, regular rolls and hand rolls for $4.95 and $2.95, and a variety of appetizers for $3.50 to $4.50.
The happy hour sushi was about as good as happy hour sushi can get. The sushi pieces were not overly large or small and the sushi rice was a good temperature and flavor, displaying a mild acidity tinged with sweetness. Of the three I ordered—escolar, hamachi (yellowtail) belly and salmon belly—the creamy, very fresh salmon belly was the best and a steal at $1.50 a piece.
I wanted to order o-toro (fatty tuna), a premium grade tuna, but Diep didn’t have any, suggesting Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin) instead. It wasn’t on the happy hour menu, but it was of very good quality—fresh, sweet and unctuous. I was happy.
In fact, though I quite enjoyed the happy hour portion of agedashi tofu, which was well-prepared and surprisingly sizable, if you’re not on a budget, I’d advise skipping the sushi portion of the happy hour menu entirely and going just for the regular menu items.
The dishes that made the strongest impression and what I’d go back for were the off-menu and regular menu items, such as the prettily constructed kani maki, a simple roll made of crab stick wrapped in cucumber and served in a light ponzu-style sauce.
A smoked salmon belly sashimi appetizer, which reminded me of the creative sashimi apps you might order at one of celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa's restaurants, was also standout. To make it, the chef cold smokes the salmon, at once preserving it while infusing it with a mild yet pleasantly smoky flavor. He then wraps each piece around mini bushels of thinly sliced apple before dressing it slightly with a mustard seed vinaigrette. The apples he chose were less tart than they were sweet, their crisp brightness a nice foil against the salinity of the smoked fish.
I ended my meal with an order of coffee mochi ice cream, leaving delighted to have found a humble hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant in Sugar Land. Oba is no buzzy see-and-be-seen kind of place like RA Sushi and it's not packed to the gills at all times, like Aka Sushi. It's certainly not so expensive it's reserved for special occasions like Uchi or MF Sushi. It’s a simple, unpretentious neighborhood restaurant, a place you can visit, knowing that the owner will be on-hand, preparing your meal with a finesse and skill that only comes with years of experience.